Kurdish Peshmerga forces keep watch in a village east of Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
By Mark Besonen
Based in an increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurdish Region, Kurdish nationalists confront an unusually favorable strategic position during a volatile time in the Middle East. The Syrian state has collapsed into civil war. Iraq is distracted internally by political gridlock and externally by the Islamic State. International sympathy and support for the Kurds’ own fight against ISIS is increasing. The congruence of these factors present Kurdish nationalists with a historic opportunity: the potential to create an independent Kurdish state.
The Syrian conflict, devastating in its scope and human costs, nevertheless offers Kurdish nationalists an opportunity to benefit from the chaos. While the Syrian government has waged a life-or-death struggle against rebel and extremist groups, Syrian Kurds have carved out an autonomous region in the country’s north, driving extremist groups south and creating semi-autonomous Kurdish governing institutions. Adjoining neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan to the east, this entity, while still in its early stages, puts Syria’s Kurdish population in a prime position to either dictate terms of reentry into a post-war federal Syria or to attempt to join Iraqi Kurds in the creation of a Kurdish state.
Iraqi internal political strife and external military setbacks against the Islamic State likewise have created a significant opportunity for Iraqi Kurds. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, they have created a nearly independent region with its own energy, economic, and foreign policies, as well as governing institutions and security forces to both fill a vacuum and enhance Kurdish autonomy. For instance, the Kurds have deepened economic ties with neighboring Turkey through oil exports. These profits will fill the coffers of Kurdish-controlled banks instead of the Iraqi treasury, allowing for greater financial independence from Baghdad. Such developments could be seen as potential foundations for eventual statehood, and movement in that direction may become increasingly attractive to Kurdish nationalists in the face of current Iraqi political and strategic realities.
Finally, the war against the Islamic State also presents a historic opportunity to Kurdish nationalists by demonstrating the value of Kurdish-centered groups. While the Iraqi military has suffered well-documented defeats and reversals at the hands of the Islamic State, Kurdish Peshmerga units have been widely hailed by observers as a serious and legitimate resistance to further extremist gains. Indeed, while the United States and its allies continue to support Iraqi military forces, deepening partnerships with Kurdish units also have led to high-profile defeats of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. In Syria, while Assad’s forces have concentrated mainly on defeating the armies of the regime’s political opponents, Kurdish militias in the north have been successful in seizing territory from ISIS, resulting in praise and support from the United States. This support has come in the forms of increased airborne surveillance and deepened ties with U.S. Special Forces units in order to coordinate operations between American air units and Kurdish ground forces. International support for these Kurdish military units could translate into greater political support for the Kurds if the status quo continues.
Obstacles to any further autonomy for Kurdish regions in northern Syria and Iraq, or eventual independence, remain daunting. Iran and Turkey, with Kurdish populations of their own, would most likely vehemently oppose such movements for fear of similar movements gaining momentum in their countries. Coupled with this, Syria and Iraq would not look kindly on the loss of further oversight over significant sectors of territory, let alone the irrevocable loss of that territory into a new state. Syrian and Iraqi Kurds themselves disagree on the way forward politically, so a union between the two would be difficult. Finally, while international and American support in the fight against the Islamic State has been significant, there is little guarantee that such support would translate into approval for any independence movement, especially amid American calls for a unified and democratic future for both Syria and Iraq. International isolation could well ensue if the Kurds declared their independence.
Despite these obstacles, current geopolitical realities in Iraq and Syria offer Kurdish nationalists the best opportunity for statehood that the Kurdish people have had in a century. While the pragmatic option of continued or further autonomy under a federal state in both instances may well remain Kurdish policy, the allure of statehood for an often-dispossessed and oppressed regional minority may well prove too great a force to be overcome.
Mark Besonen is an intern at the Council and a student at the University of Minnesota.